ALIAS – ‘Q&A’ (1×17 – Review)

While on the surface, Q&A may be Alias falling back on a tried and tested televisual trope, this epilogue of an episode is remarkably concentrated around testing philosophical concepts of fate, destiny and free will.

Alias has experienced a succession of earth-shattering revelations since the climax of The Confession that Sydney Bristow has been increasingly struggling to digest. She pulled back from quitting her life as a double agent in The Box, only for the stakes to infinitely rise as ‘The Man’ aka Alexander Khasinau emerged on the scene as a direct challenger to the Alliance and SD-6, before Page 47 and The Prophecy personalised the central Rambaldi mythology for her in a way which added a further reason why escaping this life in the short term would be impossible. Q&A may appear to be a time out from these escalating narratives but in real terms it serves more as a point to pause and take stock of where we have ended up over the last sixteen episodes.

It dispenses with Alias’ uncommon ‘double previously’ sequence, which for the entire season has reminded viewers of the complicated central concept of the series before segueing into a more immediate reminder of recent events. Q&A throws us straight into the action using the tried and tested J J. Abrams trope of ‘in media res’ storytelling, which he used to fine strategic effect in pilot episode Truth Be Told, as we see a bewigged Sydney—in full Thelma & Louise-mode—on the run from a flotilla of cops before barrelling into dockside water in either an apparent escape or suicide attempt. Q&A doesn’t need a contextual reminder because the entire episode is structured as one big ‘previously’.

Welcome to Alias’ first, and indeed last, ‘bottle episode’.

Vulture deliver a quick and concise description of what this term means here, with some choice key examples.

Bottle episodes entirely depend on the creative strengths of the TV show in question. Star Trek, the show where the term was coined, was notorious for not especially exploiting the concept to the best of its potential in the Original Series, but then equally it could serve up gems such as Deep Space Nine’s Duet, which framed the central theme of Holocaust guilt and survivor trauma at the heart of the series around largely a two-hand character drama. Breaking Bad, as discussed in the above video, divides opinion regarding Season 3’s Fly, an episode considered format-breaking brilliance by some but indulgent nonsense on the other (FYI, I’m somewhere in the middle with that one).

Alias uses this storytelling device cleverly. Q&A is not a bottle episode which simply stops the entire narrative in its tracks so the cast and crew can have a week off, rather it uses the necessary restrictions of the format to craft a story which functions as a way of integrating Syd back into her life after the disturbing revelations at the end of The Prophecy, and serve as a reminder of the complex nature of the myriad narrative threads to date. In any 22+ episode season, particularly those like Alias with a high budget, lots of locations and a large cast, a cost-saving bottle episode is often necessary – hence why it was particularly a trope of genre television or highly successful comedy shows with casts on high salaries (such as Friends, which pulled out multiple bottle episodes). Alias does what it can with these production realities to serve the wider mythology at large.

Discussing bottle episodes in the context of the aforementioned Fly, Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan suggests they can be a necessary and useful tool in the right hands:

Even if financial realities didn’t enter into it, I feel as a showrunner that there should be a certain shape and pace to each season, and the really high highs that you try to get to at the end of a season—the big dramatic moments of action and violence, the big operatic moments you’re striving for—I don’t think would land as hard if you didn’t have the moments of quiet that came before them. The quiet episodes make the tenser, more dramatic episodes pop even more than they usually would just by their contrast.

In some sense, Alias fits Gilligan’s description here. It is not exactly a quiet episode but it eschews the formula of the series for the first time, even more directly than The Box did in adapting the ‘office under siege’ concept. Syd goes on no missions here, there are no espionage set-pieces as such. She is interrogated by a panel, used as a mechanism to show clips from both across the run of the series so far and new scenes set before Truth Be Told to provide the origin story for how Syd came to be part of SD-6 in greater detail, and she is broken out in order to prove her innocence. There is plenty going on but Alias manages to combine aspects of the bottle episode while systematically forwarding the mythology and narrative in play.

Hence why it begins in media res, given the fact Q&A is ostensibly the least directly ‘action packed’ episode of Alias to date, with Syd much less directly in the field. The car chase beginning followed by the underwater plunge establishes that Syd will escape, she will be pursued and she’ll become a fugitive, we just don’t understand the context yet at this stage. It gives Q&A an initial thrust before settling in for the wordy conversation between she and Terry O’Quinn’s FBI ‘special officer’ Kendall which lays everything out, past and present, as the FBI try and establish if Sydney is a threat to national security following the Rambaldi prophecy revelations.

In any other circumstances, this could have been a plodding mess of an episode, one which breaks format too strongly in order to consolidate information for the audience going into the final few episodes of the season. A good example of an episode structured in a similar manner which doesn’t work at all is the original finale of The X-Files, The Truth, which uses the prism of a military tribunal to try and explain the nine-season mythology of the series. Q&A works better in no small part thanks to O’Quinn, one of America’s greatest character actors, who imbues Kendall with a nebulous, officious gravitas in how he poses questions to Syd your sense he already has the answers to. You can understand why Abrams brought O’Quinn and Kendall back for an almost-regular role in Season 2.

“We would like this in your words” Kendall says at the beginning of Syd talking the FBI, and us, through her story so far, after learning she can’t have a lawyer otherwise the FBI will prosecute her based on the ‘evidence’ they have already, which is questionable at best. While Kendall guides and leads with his questions, Q&A serves more as a passive aggressive confession from Syd about her journey into SD-6, toward the CIA and beyond. More than that, it feels like Abrams is using this as an opportunity to contextualise Sydney, and the series’, origin story – as if he is doing his best to get all of the facts straight in his head for the benefit of the show at large.

One of the key aspects to Kendall’s systematic questioning across the majority of Q&A is attempting to establish just how much Sydney knew, or more crucially missed, about just what SD-6, and who Arvin Sloane, was. Kendall finds it hard to believe the backstory as Syd suggests “they were very convincing” and later pushes away suggestions she was recruited because she was a genius. “Says here you were a genius” Kendall replies, with O’Quinn delivering the line with such open, calm and vaguely sarcastic straightforwardness, you can only assume Syd would have leapt over the table and punched him in the face right then and there if she could have done. Kendall also handily reminds us about Syd’s fiancee Danny, already threatening to disappear into the ether, despite his death being the primary trigger for Syd helping the CIA.

Interestingly, Abrams also uses Q&A as an opportunity to fully clarify and add some extra detail to the Alliance itself, which despite fully appearing in The Prophecy still remains clouded in mystery and to some degree neglected. SD is stated as standing for ‘Section Dispareaux’, named by the aforementioned and now seen Alain Christophe, directly meaning “the section that doesn’t exist” in French. Syd describes the Alliance as an organisation that “trades secrets and information”, which makes them a forerunner in many ways to the modern version of SPECTRE in 2015’s James Bond film Spectre, which saw the updated Blofeld using information as his method of control as opposed to nuclear weapons or giant space lasers etc… that historic Bond villains would threaten the world with.

Q&A positions the Alliance as a version of the SPECTRE trope from the original Bond series but places them in that continued post-Cold War context that has pulsed underneath the entirety of this first season. Equally while they may not confirm to fundamentalist radicalism of the kind Alias worries about post-911, and in fact heavily informs the way the FBI and the DSR react to the Rambaldi prophecy, the Alliance are international terrorists in all but name – Abrams’ script including footage of real world disasters and mentions incidents such as the ‘Carbon Proxy disaster’ in Bangalore in 1992 (likely based on the Bhopal disaster in 1984), the Kyoto bullet train crash of 1996 and the downing of a transport plane in Munich in 2000, all of them attributed to Alliance corruption and manipulation.

If The Truth ends up utilising a similar ‘clip show’ trope as Q&A a year later, Abrams arguably borrows from the Season 5 premiere of The X-Files, Redux, in the context of blending real world history with the internal mythology of the series. Alias would play with a level of secret history through Rambaldi but didn’t often attempt to combine that fictional enigma with major real world political or social events, keeping a respectable distance between the pulp mythology of the show and the world we know. Having the Alliance be directly named as responsible for acts of terror beyond the show is a way of further grounding and contextualising the threat the FBI consider Syd may herself pose, even if its based on a 500 year old text.

This becomes the fear of her father Jack Bristow, who marshals her CIA handler Michael Vaughn to help him cook up a plan to rescue Syd. “In the current climate, the FBI are being extra vigilant” with said climate being post-9/11, with Alias right in the after shock of the attack on New York, even if the show never directly references the event. Jack’s comment which closes out the pre-credits sequence about Syd being held without charges or trial for the rest of her life feels like a chilling indictment on the American justice system in the wake of a devastating attack on its lifeblood. It is no wonder a year later Chris Carter repurposed the same kind of kangaroo court scenario for Fox Mulder in his own world of shadow governments and unethical systems.

Having Jack working with Vaughn on the outside also allows Q&A to function outside of the bottle episode tropes and advance the main plot, plus gives the episode a break from the format of interrogation bleeding into clip sequences and flashback moments re-telling Syd and Alias’ story. Vaughn employs logic in his quest to try and find a way out of it, when Jack is only thinking short term – get Syd out of the FBI before Sloane realises she’s gone and her cover is blown, a concern the FBI strangely don’t seem the factor into their decision processes here. Vaughn does at least question, partly thanks to the ever-present Stephen Haldaki whispering doubts in his ear, if Rambaldi’s prophecy is true and that Syd *might* well be some kind of threat. “We’ve decoded 47 unique, verifiable Rambaldi predictions. The guy hasn’t been wrong once”.

This is where Alias deploys an intriguing resolution to the plot hole of Syd’s captivity. If the FBI believe she’s a threat, believe that Rambaldi’s prophecies are likely to become true (and this makes a lot more sense once you find out Kendall was always DSR, because why *would* the FBI believe a wacky Renaissance prophet?), then how do you snap Syd back into her old life and, conversely, Alias back into the established series formula after revelations like these? Does she spend the rest of the season on the run? The rest of the show? Does every episode become about Rambaldi? Do you throw out the double agent plot line? The answer turns out to be – let fate decide. Let destiny and free will be Syd’s guide.

Vaughn’s answer to the riddle is simple: Rambaldi in his quatrains wrote:

This woman, without pretense, will have had her effect, never having seen the beauty of my sky behind Mt. Subasio. Perhaps a single glance would have quelled her fire.

If Syd therefore goes to Mount Subasio, the place Vaughn realises Rambaldi was born, and sees the sunrise, then she cannot be the person Rambaldi was talking about, which invalidates her as being any kind of national security threat. It is simple and effective and ties into another broader theme behind the episode: proving and disproving theory. We will get to this in discussing Syd’s mother, but Syd worries that essentially gaming and shaming the US government into pardoning her after they break her out (a trick the show would build an entire episode around in Season 3’s Breaking Point), is flawed and won’t work. Jack’s pragmatic reply: “Then everything we do is predetermined and nothing we do makes any difference”.

These kind of philosophical musings are rarely dwelt on in a show like Alias, which is built on propulsive forward movement amidst some deeply esoteric storytelling, but they serve as a clear forerunner to aspects Abrams would initialise and explore in Lost, a show which dwarfed Alias in terms of audience reach and popularity. Alias is not a show about destiny in the same sense Lost was but it certainly plays with the idea that Rambaldi, as the series’ God-figure, exerts some level of advance knowledge about how events play out for our central characters – Sloane in particular, as Countdown later evidences. The same cannot quite be said for Syd, particularly in how the series later tries to retcon and invalidate the Mount Subasio plot device used here and in Masquerade.

In the end, after all the philosophical trappings behind her breakout and the way of invalidating Rambaldi’s predictions, Syd decides to test Fate in her final actions during the car chase the episode has been building up to.

In the earlier interrogation, Kendall’s questions had edged into the personal, and when you later see him positioned as directly involved in Irina Derevko’s willing defection to the CIA, Syd’s missing two years and his role in the DSR, you understand why he would have pushed so hard to try and understand Syd’s connection to her mother Laura, Jack’s loyalty to his government, and quite what happened when Laura died in the car crash being pursued, we now know, by a CIA counter-intelligence agent. “Your mother was a traitor. A woman who appeared to be one thing but was in fact another” Kendall pragmatically states, drawing a very pointed parallel between Syd and her mother at this point. Both potentially women who betrayed their country at points of deep political sensitivity.

What Syd does, following the car chase (in which Abrams finds a way to include her friends Will & Francie in an almost metafictional context as we cut to them watching news coverage of the chase on TV “Why doesn’t the guy just give up?”), is decide to test fate and prove, or disprove, the theory of Laura having survived the car crash years ago. This turned out to be one of the key ‘tent pole’ moments of the season’s plotting, as Ken Olin—also director of this episode—describes in Alias Declassified: The Official Companion:

That’s one of the things I pushed for at the beginning. That Sydney finds herself in the same scenario her mother was in when she supposedly died. So if Sydney can survive, she realises perhaps her mother survived the same situation.

This ends up being major foreshadowing for the end of the season as Syd realises in terms of Rambaldi’s prophecy that “It’s either Mom or me. I know it’s not me”. Syd wants to believe that but right now, Q&A simply gets her to a point which adds the final complication to her voyage of discovery this season regarding her family history: that Laura probably survived and is somewhere out there. It makes sense in the context of the revelations and gives the final quarter of the series an extra propulsion as we begin working toward Laura’s eventual introduction into the saga.

Q&A, consequently, ends up being far more than a simple cost-cutting ‘bottle episode’. It drops a major revelation at the end of a consolidation of everything Alias has been up to this point. The series continues to evolve and push at the edges of what we expect from the narrative construct of the episodic tropes it plays with. 

Check out more reviews of Season 1 of Alias here:

Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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